The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke was first published in 1956 and is based on an original short story entitled 'Against the Fall of Night'. Before I read the book several years ago, I had just finished reading the twin pillars of Olaf Stapledon's literary career: Starmaker and Last and First Men. I knew that Stapledon had been a big influence on Clarke and this was prominent throughout the pages of The City and the Stars. The story is set initially in the apparently Utopian city of Diaspar, a billion years in the future. The citizens of Diaspar are immortal; the humans are created by machines and people can die and be reborn from the computer, which stores their life's memories. To maintain population control, the computer chooses which citizens to awake from their virtual death in order to live another lifespan in Diaspar.

In the story, Clarke proposes a definition of the ideal machine: that "no machine may contain any moving parts". The central character - Alvin - is different from his contemporaries because this is his first life and in some ways he is responsible for the renewal of human civilization to come. But Alvin has a passion, to get outside of the city and explore, an almost infectious obsession that drives his every action. Eventually, he is helped by what can only be described as a deliberate and mischievous anomaly in the computer program (called Khedron) that shows him the way. There is a fundamental paradox in the story. The city of Diaspar is a perfect place, but the world outside is not. After a long period of galactic war the city of Diaspar is the last resting place of humanity, protected from any would-be invaders by a large domed shield.

Humanity was once a star-fairing species but has been forced to adopt an insular existence. Diaspra is also a form of dystopia, offering its inhabitants all they could ever want including immortality, but inhibiting their freedom to explore the world outside.

Outside the city is the human settlement of Lys, an apparently technologically less advanced place with no interest in space travel, consisting of mortal people who have perfected mental telepathy. In Lys, Alvin meets a companion called Hilvar and together they explore the planet. Eventually they meet an ancient extraterrestrial creature and his fellow robot that were loyal to their masters - 'The Great Ones'. Their journey leads them to the discovery of a spaceship and they are able to leave Earth and travel to meet a powerful but child-like being of pure intellect called 'Vanamonde,' who can travel through space instantaneously.

They establish a telepathic communication with the being. From this encounter they learn the truth of what happened to the rest of the human race and the terrible deeds of the insane being known as 'The Mad Mind', a form of 'mentality', which had been imprisoned inside a 'black star'.

Like much of Clarke’s writing, this story contains a powerful blend of credible science fiction and large ideas which border on the metaphysical.

Clarke maintains a perfect balance between these two limits and demonstrates, as he does with many of his other books, that he is a corking good writer. The City and the Stars is one my favourite science fiction novels by Clarke. I left the book wanting to know more, about where Alvin travelled to next.